CARACAS, Venezuela -- (CBS/AP)
President Hugo Chavez ordered tanks and thousands of troops sent to Venezuela's border with Colombia on Sunday, accusing his neighbor of pushing South America to the brink of war and saying his government's embassy in Bogota will be closed.
The leftist leader warned Colombia's U.S.-allied government that Venezuela will not permit acts like its killing of top rebel leader Raul Reyes and 16 other Colombian guerrillas Saturday at a camp across the border in Ecuador.
"Mr. Defense Minister, move 10 battalions to the border with Colombia for me, immediately - tank battalions, deploy the air force," Chavez said during his weekly TV and radio program. "We don't want war, but we aren't going to permit the U.S. empire, which is the master (of Colombia) ... to come divide us."
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, also ordered troops to the Colombian border, withdrew his government's ambassador from Bogota and ordered Colombia's top diplomat expelled.
"There is no justification," Correa said Sunday night, snubbing an earlier announcement from Colombia that it would apologize for the incursion by its military.
"Ecuadorean territory has been outraged and bombed by an air attack and the later incursion of (Colombian) troops," Correa said in a news conference. "I decided on the immediate expulsion of Colombia's ambassador in Ecuador," Carlos Holguin.
"Before the seriousness of the events, I have ordered the mobilization of troops to the border," Correa added.
Chavez said his Ecuadorean ally told him that Uribe had lied and that the rebels were killed while asleep in their camp.
Chavez also ordered the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogota closed and said all embassy personnel would be withdrawn. It pushes already tense relations between the South American neighbors to their lowest point yet, with potentially far-reaching effects on billions of dollars in cross-border trade.
Though Chavez didn't say how many troops he was sending, a Venezuelan battalion traditionally has some 600 soldiers - meaning some 6,000 could be headed to the border.
Chavez called the Colombian government "a terrorist state" as he sided with the leftist rebels it has battled for decades, saying its military "invaded Ecuador, flagrantly violated Ecuador's sovereignty."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez"This is something very serious. This could be the start of a war in South America," Chavez said. He warned Colombian President Alvaro Uribe: "If it occurs to you to do this in Venezuela, President Uribe, I'll send some Sukhois" - Russian warplanes recently bought by Venezuela.
He called Uribe "a criminal" and saying "Dracula's fangs (are) are covered in blood."
The slaying of Reyes and 16 other guerrillas, Chavez said, "wasn't any combat. It was a cowardly murder, all of it coldly calculated."
Neither Colombia's foreign minister nor the country's military leadership would comment on Chavez's latest move when asked by reporters Sunday as they left a funeral service in Bogota for a Colombian soldier killed in Saturday's raid.
Colombia's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been waging a decades-long battle. Colombia's prosecutor's office said Reyes was wanted in connection with more than 120 different criminal processes, including 60 charges of murder and four for kidnapping.
Speaking in Texas, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said officials were monitoring the situation.
"This is an odd reaction by Venezuela to Colombia's efforts against the FARC, a terrorist organization that continues to hold Colombians, Americans and others hostage," Johndroe said.
Colombia denied it violated Ecuador's sovereignty but acknowledged attacking the camp maintained on Ecuadorean soil by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"The terrorists, among them Raul Reyes, have had the custom of killing in Colombia and taking refuge in the territory of neighboring countries. Many times Colombia has suffered from this situation," Colombia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement released early Sunday.
Correa said Colombia's military violated Ecuadorean airspace and entered to carry away Reyes' body. Colombian officials have long complained that Ecuador's military does not control its sparsely populated border and has not tried to remove rebel camps.
While Ecuador called home its ambassador in protest, that does not entail a "definitive rupture of relations" and commercial ties will remain, Ecuadorean Deputy Foreign Minister Jose Valencia said.
Chavez, seen at left, interrupted his program to take a call from Correa and said according to his ally, Colombia's military "entered from the south and bombed from Ecuadorean territory."
Colombia's military tracked Reyes' location through an informant and bombed a camp on its side of the Ecuadorean border, where Reyes was thought to be, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said. He said that when ground troops moved in, they came under attack from another camp across the border in Ecuador. When the military overran that camp, they found Reyes' body.
Chavez interrupted his program Sunday for a moment of silence in honor of the slain rebels.
"We pay tribute to a true revolutionary, who was Raul Reyes," Chavez said later, recalling he had met rebel in Brazil in 1995 and calling him a "good revolutionary."
"The Colombian government has become the Israel of Latin America," an agitated Chavez said, reiterating his criticism of Israeli military strikes on Palestinian militants. "We aren't going to permit Colombia to become the Israel of these lands. ... Uribe, we aren't going to permit you."
"Someday Colombia will be freed from the hand of the (U.S.) empire," Chavez said. "We have to liberate Colombia," he added, saying Colombia's people will eventually do away with its government.
Chavez maintains warm relations with the FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla group, and has sought to play a role as mediator in the conflict despite his growing conflict with Colombia's government.
Colombia's government said Sunday documents found in a jungle camp in Ecuador where Colombia troops killed Reyes showed Ecuador's President Correa also maintained Colombia's government said Sunday documents found in a jungle camp in Ecuador where Colombia troops killed a top guerrilla commander showed Ecuador's President Rafael Correa also maintained ties with the FARC rebels.
Colombia and Venezuela have been locked in a diplomatic crisis since November, when Uribe ended Chavez's official role negotiating a proposed hostages-for-prisoners swap.
Nevertheless, the FARC freed four hostages to Venezuelan officials last week, and they were reunited with their families in Caracas. It was the second unilateral release by the FARC this year.
Chavez has recently angered Uribe by urging world leaders to classify the leftist rebels as "insurgents" rather than "terrorists."
The FARC has proposed trading some 40 remaining high-value captives, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors, for hundreds of imprisoned guerrillas.
Chavez said the Colombian military "are guided from the Pentagon." The U.S. government routinely provides satellite intelligence and communications intercepts from surveillance planes that overfly Colombia.
U.S Embassy spokeswoman Suzanne Hall, in Bogota, would not comment on possible American government involvement in the operation that led to Reyes' death.
"This is a government of Colombian operation," she said. "Talk to the government of Colombia for any operational details."
Posted by LS